Can you imagine having made Pesach without potatoes? What would you have eaten? How about Chanukah without latkes or a Shabbos Kiddush without potato kugel? Without a doubt, potatoes have been a staple of a Jewish diet for a long time.
Almost all of the potatoes we purchase are of the Russet-Burbank variety, whether they are “Idaho Potatoes” or “Eastern Potatoes” (the name given to those tubers grown in the general regions of New England and Eastern Canada). The difference between the two varieties is primarily the dirt they are grown in, and the way we use them (please don’t bake an Eastern Potato). In any event, the commercial processing of both regions of potato is the same.
The grade of potatoes one would purchase for cholent and the grade found in dehydrated flakes is of no comparison. “Fresh pack”, as the 5-lb. bags we get locally are referred to in the industry, represent the best looking spuds on the farm. Lower grade potatoes must go into some sort of processing.
Raw potatoes are scrubbed from dirt and are sorted to remove rocks. Once clean, they are blanched with either live steam or conveyed through a bath of boiling water. This process serves to more easily remove the peel. Next they are cut into “slabs”, 3/8”-1/2” slices, for cooking. Slabs are almost always cooked in a live steam auger system, which looks like a huge steel box with a metal spiral inside. The spiral auger serves to regulate the time the potatoes stay in the cooker, and the production crew knows how to pace the speed of the auger’s rotation to keep the potatoes in the steam long enough for them to be fully cooked. Product is then sent through a “ricer” (nothing to do with kitniyos), which is a machine that mashes up the cooked potatoes and mixes in some production aids or possibly flavors (for those that are added before the dehydration process). From the ricer, product is carried to a set of large, hot steel drums with live steam running through them. This serves to dehydrate the potatoes into what comes out looking like a sheet of potato paper! Product is then collected and ground into varies flake sizes or powders. Interestingly enough, the blemished parts of the spud that originally rendered the potato a lesser grade are removed from production at the drum phase. These diseased potato cells will not stick to the hot drums (no one is really sure why) and wind up falling off the drums, guaranteeing a mashed potato product of the highest quality.
A kashrus agency will focus on several key points in this process. The first issue is bishul yisroel, which for a potato product is a serious issue.1 Many agencies regard cooking through steam as something which does not require bishul yisroel, due to a combination of two factors: many poskim 2 view steam as being more similar to smoking (a process which the Mechaber in Y.D. 113:13 calls a method of cooking which does not require bishul yisroel) than to standard cooking (which does require bishul yisroel). In addition, many cite the ruling of poskim 3 who say that things made in a factory setting do not require bishul yisroel.
For those agencies who require bishul yisroel for things cooked with steam, the mashgiach will usually turn on the boilers, thus making all of the steam used in the facility bishul yisroel. Alternatively, he could turn on the second steam cooker (product is completely raw when it leaves the first cooker/blancher, and is not yet subject to bishul yisroel) that could make the product bishul yisroel as well. The second issue to focus on is the processing chemicals involved. Monoglycerides, citric acid, anti-foam, and assorted gums all require kosher supervision (and special Passover supervision for Passover certified product). The third issue is flavorings. Butters, cheeses, and creams are often added to finished product. The certifying agency must confirm that these flavors are all kosher as well.
Here too, potatoes are washed, sorted and blanched to remove the peel. At this point, the process digresses from flake production.
Did you ever wonder how French fries could be made in so many odd shapes? Actually, companies must employ all kinds of different cutting mechanisms in order to get those shapes, no small assignment indeed. Let’s discuss, for example, the way “straight cuts” are formed. For the various sizes and shapes of straight cuts (shoestring, steak, 3/8”, etc) the system is particularly ingenious. Imagine having to hire someone to cut hundreds of thousands of potatoes in exactly the same size every day. Not an easy assignment, right? Companies have figured out a much more efficient way. They convey the potatoes in water tubes, similar to those you may have enjoyed at a water park during your camp days, with one small difference. At the end of the pipe is an interchangeable “pine cone”, which is actually a set of cutting edges set inside of one another (imagine looking down at the point end of the pine cone). The potato literally gets shot through the cutting blades into its assigned cut size!!!
Much like in a flake process, fried potatoes are rarely made from the top grade of potato. Unlike flake product, there is no final drum phase to sort out the “bad” parts of the potato. If so, how can our French fries always look so good? Many companies use a computerized system of electronic eyes that “spot” the bad parts of the potato, and hyperspeed fast knives chop the bad part away as they pass. Be sure to let Bubby what major manufacturers have to go through to do a job as good as she does!!!
From here, the product is pre-cooked in a blancher to soften it before being fried. Some companies “batter” their products before they are fried, which means they pass the cut potatoes through a mix of flours, spices, colors and water. The product is then sent through the fryers before being tumbled in salt and spices. It is then frozen, packaged and boxed.
There is a question whether fried potatoes are subject to requiring bishul yisroel. Though few poskim feel that fried potatoes would be served at a state dinner or a chasuna, some feel that the consideration of a food’s requirement of bishul yisroel rests not on its specific preparation, but rather the species as a whole. Those poskim would say, that since there are some potato products that can be served at shulchan melachim, all potato products require bishul yisroel. For those who require bishul yisroel, the Rabbi must turn on the fryers (not the boilers), because the product is still essentially raw when it leaves the pre-cooking stage. If the steam of a central boiler is what heats the fryers, the Rabbi could alternatively adjust the boiler (as with the flakes above) to make the steam heating the fryer bishul yisroel.
As with flakes, processing chemicals for fried potato products require hashgacha. There are additional concerns about the flavors added before and after the frying process. The most serious concern with any fried potato product is the oil. Though most major facilities do not fry in tallow or lard (beef and pork fat respectively), many producers of vegetable oils can manufacture otherwise kosher oil on the same equipment used for non-kosher oil. Agencies must establish and maintain a system of guaranteeing that the oil used in the fryers comes from exclusively kosher sources. Since most factories receive their oil in bulk shipments (trailers, tankers or railcars) a system for maintaining receiving documents must also be established.
There is no question as to the level of chesed Hashem in giving us a potato. As Rabbi Avigdor Miller, a”h, once explained the the zechus of Hashem having given the world the potato is tremendous. In order to make bread, the Gemara in Masechet Shabbos lists 11 separate melachos that must be performed. Potatoes, on the other hand, are essentially fully prepared as they emerge from the soil. Though the commentators note that l’asid lavo bread will eventually emerge fully prepared from the ground (which is one explanation of the nusach of the bracha being hamotzi lechem – i.e. fully prepared bread – min haaretz), we are not currently on a madrayga to receive our bread this way. A potato is, as Rabbi Miller put it, “like a whole bagel coming right out of the ground!!” A m’ayn olam habo, straight from the produce department. Something to think about before you make your next borei pri haadama!!!
1 Many poskim, including the Aruch HaShulchan and possibly HaRav Henkin, z”l, do not see potatoes as ever being fit for Shulchan Melochim. Since the status of the potato has risen from the designation as “peasant food”, it is possible that those poskim would agree with the assertion of most contemporary authorities that potatoes as a species are potentially fit to be served as Shulchan Melochim.
2 See Darchei Teshuva 113:16 who cited the “Zer Zahav” on the Issur V’heter klal 43:4 who is matir by distinguishing between bishul Shabbos and bishul Akum which is more kal. He also points out that the machinery that cooks through steam is a relatively new innovation, and could not have been included in Chazal’s gezeira on bishul Akum. See also the “Even Shesiyah” Y.D. 3 who cites the same points. The Aruch HaShulchan 113:23 also learns this way.
3 Including the “Minchas Yitzchok” Y.D. 3:26 who brings such from “Gedolei HaAcharonim”, “Even Shesiyah” and “Darchei Teshuva” cited above. See “Maharit Tzhalon” siman 161 (whose opinion is brought in “Birchei Yosef” Y.D. 112:9) that there is no bishul Akum in a factory setting, as well as a quote from Rabbi Natan Greenblat, shlit”a from HaRav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l.